JEFFERSON CITY — A Missouri board reluctantly voted Thursday to rescind health and safety rules for hundreds of child-care centers run by religious organizations because state law prohibits state regulation of such facilities.
Regulations that prohibit caregivers from being drunk or on drugs or posing a threat to children are among those that could be rescinded after the change is published in the Missouri Register and opened to a public comment period.
The State Board of Health's vote to repeal the rules that have been in effect since July 30, 1995, came after health department officials said they determined the rules ran contrary to state law. But that didn't make it any easier.
A 1993 Missouri law prohibits the state from interfering with programming and instruction or hiring, supervision and terms for employees of religious-based child-care facilities.
"There's something inherently wrong with deleting caregivers and other personnel" from prohibitions against being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, said Joseph Forand, a physician and board member from St. Louis. "I understand your legal point ... but ouch!"
Missouri has 4,324 child-care facilities and nurseries, according to the Department of Health and Senior Services. The regulation repeal would apply to 590 license-exempt facilities, 90 percent of which are run by religious organizations.
Health department staff attorneys determined earlier this year that the law ran contrary to the department's existing regulations while they researched legislation to strengthen Missouri's child-care laws, said Kathy Quick, the department's administrator for child-care regulations.
"This is not a decision we reached easily, but to move forward we had to correct this," Quick said.
Other regulations that would be repealed include requiring caregivers to remain in the room with children, even while the youngsters are napping or using the bathroom, and capping the number of infants and toddlers in a single room at 24.
Health department officials said they hope to persuade legislators next year to toughen child-care laws, which would allow some of the regulations targeted for repeal to eventually be reinstated.
"I'm just worried there might be three or four years in between when our children might be in danger," said Nathalie Tungesvik, a health board member and Jefferson City dentist.
Karen Werner, executive director of the Missouri Association of Child Care Providers, said the department should have left the regulations on the book while it lobbied to make the state law match them.
"The department is putting millions of children at risk and using them as a bargaining chip for legislators, and by doing so I think it's appalling," said Werner, who runs several child-care centers in Jefferson City.